In Week 4 of his rookie season, Baker Mayfield was already QB1 for the Cleveland Browns. The previous week, the No. 1 overall draft pick had come off the bench for injured quarterback Tyrod Taylor and delivered salvation. A comeback 21-17 win over the New York Jets was Cleveland’s first victory since Dec. 24, 2016, and the starting job was Mayfield’s.
“I’ve just been waiting for my moment,” he said after the game. “I’m just getting started.”
In Baltimore, the wait continued for Lamar Jackson. As Mayfield passed for nearly 300 yards in a shootout overtime loss to the Oakland Raiders, the No. 32 overall pick didn’t attempt a pass in a 26-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, his third straight no-throw game. Jackson, still a rookie gadget player behind established starter Joe Flacco, instead rushed four times for 17 yards.
As the Ravens and Browns prepare to meet Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in their AFC North opener, it is worth considering not only how much has changed since their memorable last encounter but also since their last Week 4. In late September 2018, the Ravens were 2-1 and Flacco hadn’t yet hurt his hip. The Browns were 1-1-1 and looked like the furthest thing from the division’s next offseason favorite.
A year later, the faces of the franchise have changed but the teams’ results have not ― not yet, anyway. The defending champion Ravens are 2-1, their lone loss coming against a Super Bowl favorite. The once-hyped Browns are 1-2, their lone win coming against a team playing its third-string quarterback.
For all their differences in public perception, the teams are united in their reliance on second-year quarterbacks. And as Jackson has ascended through three games, Mayfield has struggled. Their looming showdown is already rich with drama and backstory. Who knows what will happen next in a matchup that could define the AFC North for years to come?
“I'm sure a bunch of fans are going to be circling that,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said Wednesday. “Just like [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick] Mahomes and Lamar [in Week 3], there's going to be the same type of atmosphere for those games.”
The first Jackson-Mayfield installment will be tough to top. Needing a Week 17 win at home, the Ravens held on, 26-24, to secure their first playoff appearance since 2014 and first AFC North crown since 2012. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley’s interception on fourth down with just over a minute left set off celebrations across Baltimore and denied Cleveland its spoiler hopes.
The quarterback duel seemed like a preview of the teams’ long-term offensive designs. Jackson finished 14-for-24 for 179 yards and had 20 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns, part of a rushing offense that gashed Cleveland for 296 yards. Mayfield was 23-for-42 for 376 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
On offense and defense, the Ravens had bludgeoned their way into the postseason. Cleveland would do it another way. In maybe the offseason’s most high-profile move, the Browns traded for Odell Beckham Jr., pairing one of the NFL’s most promising young quarterbacks with one of the league’s most dynamic receivers. Almost overnight, the Browns became the sexy pick in the AFC North. Mayfield found himself on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. Analysts praised the franchise’s new direction. All the while, Ravens players rolled their eyes.
“We have a lot of free time, and in the media, they’re talking about OBJ and that tandem, and Baker Mayfield, the next savior,” safety Earl Thomas III said Wednesday. “He had a hot start. And then, to add on to that, Coach [John Harbaugh] talked about it a couple of times in meetings. So guys kind of got tired of it.”
It’s taken less than a month for the AFC North’s quarterback pecking order to reorder itself. With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (elbow) out for the season and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton having a ho-hum start to 2019, Mayfield has had every chance to emerge as the division’s most important player. But problems with accuracy and pocket awareness have limited him. He ranks 32nd in the NFL in passer rating, and the Browns’ offense is No. 28 in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
He has played, in many ways, like critics expected Jackson to this season. Jackson, meanwhile, has played like many fans (and fantasy football owners) expected Mayfield to: 63% passing, 863 passing yards, eight total touchdowns and no interceptions, as productive a passer as a runner. One viral tweet from this week perhaps best underscores the gap between their early-season performances: Jackson could throw eight straight interceptions Sunday before Mayfield attempts a pass and still have a superior quarterback rating this season.
“I think Lamar has made some strides and is throwing the ball well, which I know those guys put a lot of time into that, and he certainly has,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said in a conference call Wednesday. “It’s evident on film. And, of course, everybody knows how gifted he is as a runner. So he presents tremendous challenges for us as a defense, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Ravens know better than to expect anything less than Mayfield at his best. Harbaugh said Wednesday that the Browns “do many of the things that he does well.” Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Mayfield has “got some weapons this year that he didn’t have last year.” Even Jackson, who’s friendly with the fellow Heisman Trophy winner off the field, said Mayfield “went No. 1 in the draft for a reason.”
A loss Sunday would not undercut the Ravens’ year as it would have in their 2018 regular-season finale. But the game will have practical and symbolic significance. With a win, the Ravens would re-establish a two-game lead for first place in the AFC North at the season’s quarter pole. It might also cement Jackson as the division’s top quarterback, a distinction that seemed incomprehensible only a year ago.
“It’s pretty exciting and something to look forward to,” center Matt Skura said Thursday of the matchup. “Because those two just make electrifying plays, and you know that something spectacular is going to happen.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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